Four Notre Dame nuns have spent the past ten years tackling problems of black and hispanic workers in Apopka, round the corner from affluent Disneyworld. Christopher Rails recently met two of them.
WHEN THE Catholic Institute for International Relations invited me to meet two nuns from Florida the last subject I expected them to talk about was a Third World project taking place within the bounds of the United States of America.
Yet this just about sums up the state of conditions for black and Hispanic workers in the town of Apopka — just thirty minutes drive from Disneyworld. America's shop window of affluence.
Sisters Ann Kendrick and Teresa McElwie are part of a team of four Notre Dame nuns working in the area. Three of them, Sr Ann, and Srs Cathy Gorman and Gail Grimes oversee the work of the Office of Migrant Ministry in Apopka. Sr Teresa runs the Justice and Peace Office in nearby Orlando.
They explained that Black and Hispanic workers, employed on low incomes to farm the thousands of acres of citrus fruits and vegetables, have no legal right to organise themselves into unions.
There are unemployed and underemployed migrant workers who work for part of the year in farming, or as hotel and motel chambermaids. Many are illegal immigrants who ply back and forth across the border between the United States and Mexico. There are none of the benefits of a welfare state, and no free legal advice, President Reagan has seen to that.
Added to this, the migrant workers have to pay extortionate rents to live in shanty town conditions. and one landlord at least was recently making an income
of S1,200 a week (around 1650) while reserving the right to throw his Haitian tenants onto the streets without warning.
It was this sort of thing that prompted the OM M to initiate a project aimed at providing lowcost housing aimed at integrating blacks, whites and hispanics.
But there were problems. In a town like Apopka, blacks and Hispanics do not normally own property. When the local white population got to know of the housing scheme, a group of them arrived one night and ripped out all the plumbing.
In a town known for the activities of the Ku Klux Klan this was scarcely surprising; blacks are still called "niggers". Small wonder that Sr Ann described Florida as "a racist. backward, one-horse state".
Nevertheless, 150 houses have been built in the past five years.
Another problem was that of health care. In this case the issue was the indiscriminate use of pesticides by the multinationally owned fruit and vegetable growers. Skin diseases and nausea among migrant crop pickers were dismissed by the growers until a clinic set up by the nuns indicated that all pickers had the same symptoms.
Further investigations showed that Federal guidelines were being ignored; pickers were being sprayed with pesticides while they worked, and planes used for the purpose were not numbered. thus nullifying complaints.
OMM joined with other groups to hold a conference on pesticides usage, and many of the local farmworkers who gave evidence were threatened or lost their jobs. Perhaps the only positive result has been a dramatisation of the whole affair by some 30 teenagers who have organised street theatres under the slogan "Faith, Culture and Liberation". which seeks to struggle with the proble-ms of social injustice and its effects, such as widespread resort to drugs and alcohol.
The nuns have been in Apopka for ten years. and the biggest hurdle they still have is dealing with workers everyday problems.
"Our role is trying to make people see the connection between our little project and wider issues such as health care," said Sr Ann.
Yet the "white and middle class" Catholics on the other side of to n are oblivious to the real problems.
"They teal we should evangelise the blacks and tell them about the One True Church-, she explained.
The continuous shift in the migrant population makes it difficult to train leaders who will stay in the community.
But the nuns have made progress by sending five women on a course at Notre Dame University which resulted in the women themselves founding their own group to seek out other
women in an oppressed situation.
Before the end of the session it became clear that the nuns have been involved with more projects than they care to name. and there were passing references to a cooperative and a local radio station.
Someone sitting next to me had been to Apopka to see the nuns' work at first hand. I realised the sheer magnitude of their involvement when she commented: "You've only heard about a tenth of what they've been up to!"